Archive for the 'Policy' Category

When a Good Novel Is A Bad Thing

Edited to add: The original version of this post was marked up wrong, causing it to jump from the middle of the first paragraph to the middle of the fourth. That presumably made it seem pretty incoherent. It’s fixed now. If it made no sense to you before, I hope you’ll give it another shot.


If you read a novel a month, then Anthony Trollope, Philip Roth and William Faulkner (my three current favorites) should be enough to get you through the next 8 years. At that point you can start in on Dostoevsky or (if your memory is like mine) go back to the beginning and it will all seem new again.

There are in the world, far too many superb novels to read in a single lifetime, which makes it pretty hard to justify writing new ones. Even the best of contemporary novelists might well be more usefully employed as, say, an exterminator.

Yet successful novelists receive great rewards that encourage them to continue writing. That’s what we call a market failure — a case where price signals have failed in their mission to direct resources (in this case the novelist’s time and effort) to their most valuable uses.

You can, for example, get the Kindle edition of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! for about $8.50. For the same $8.50, you can get the Kindle edition of, say, Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Either way, you’ll read a terrific book. But if you fork over $8.50 for Gruen’s book, she and her publisher get the message that they’ve given you at least $8.50 worth of value, and they should keep it up. That’s an illusion, because it ignores all the value that was lost when you bypassed the Faulkner.

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The Sky Won’t Fall if the Ceiling Holds

Paul Krugman proffers a trademark sneer to the “default deniers” who are “asserting that the government can prioritize, so as to avoid a default on interest payments”. Not so, says Krugman, who insists that

The crucial point here is that even if they’re right about interest payments — which is unclear — the government will (a) still go into default on obligations to vendors, Social Security recipients, and so on (b) be forced into spending cuts so large as to guarantee a recession if the standoff lasts any length of time.

Well, first of all, as I wrote the last time the debt ceiling got raised, it’s easy to cover all of the interest on the national debt via spending cuts. At least to a rough approximation, you could do it by eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Labor, none of which should ever have existed in the first place.

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Sun Burned

This is a picture of Jeffrey Punton, from my hometown of Rochester, New York, standing in front of the solar panels that he installed at a cost of about $42,500. He figures that over the long term, they’ll save him maybe $8000 to $10,000 in power bills. But he’ll only lose a few thousand dollars on the deal, thanks to about $30,000 in government subsidies — in other words, thanks to those of you who pay taxes. He keeps the panels up as a conversation-starter so he can educate people about how little sense these subsidies make.

The story is here.

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Destruction Paper

It’s well understood that if you see the world through sufficiently Keynesian eyes, you might welcome a destructive hurricane or the threat of an alien invasion (together with the frantic spending it would stimulate) as just the ticket to lift the economy out of a recession.

What seems to have been largely overlooked is that even in a thoroughly non-Keynesian world where markets work perfectly (or as perfectly as they can in the presence of a distortionary income tax), and recessions cure themselves, we might still want that hurricane.

Or, because we can’t always call forth hurricanes when we need them, we might want our government to simulate their effects by diverting funds from useful to destructive spending projects — or just occasionally showing up at people’s houses and trashing their furniture.

Here’s why: Hurricanes make us collectively poorer. When we’re poorer, we work more. When we work more, the government collects additional income tax revenue. But — taking total government spending as given — the government can’t continue to collect additional revenue forever; sooner or later it must lower tax rates. (This assumes we’re on the good side of the Laffer curve, where the way to collect less revenue is to lower rates, not raise them.) When tax rates fall, labor markets work more efficiently. So much so, in fact, that the efficiency gains can more than compensate for the initial destruction.

I only realized this recently, and it surprised me (along with several others I showed it to) enough that I wrote it up as a short paper. (Update: A more recent version of the paper is here.) I also looked back through my blog archives to see how badly I’d gotten this wrong in the past.

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Judgment Calls

If you need further proof that a human being is a close cousin to a chimpanzee, you need look no farther than the design of the American justice system.

Debra Nelson, the judge in the George Zimmerman murder case, has disallowed testimony from audio experts about whether that’s Zimmerman or the deceased Trayvon Martin who can be heard screaming on the 911 tape. That matters, because much of what’s in dispute here is the question of who attacked whom.

One prosecution expert was prepared to testify that the screams are Martin’s, and another that they are at least not Zimmerman’s. Defense experts were prepared to dispute those claims. They made their arguments in front of the judge for several days, whereupon she ruled that the jury won’t be allowed to hear any of it.

The judge’s concern was that there is no good evidence that the experts’ techniques are reliable. That might be true. But who should be making that call — the judge or the jury?

There is, I think, an excellent case to be made that juries are, by and large, incompetent (or at least less competent than judges) to determine what constitutes a plausible argument by an audio expert. But if you buy that argument, I think you’ll be pretty much forced to conclude that the jury is also incompetent to reach a verdict. If that’s your view, we shouldn’t have juries in the first place.

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Hate Crimes in Black and White

Which should the law treat more severely: Killing a guy because he cut you off in traffic or killing a guy because you don’t like his race?

Elsewhere on the web (link omitted because the source is the invitation-only blog of a personal friend), I read the following:

In the former case, you’re a danger to the person who wronged you. In the latter, you’re a danger to tens of millions of people, and that’s just in the US.

Hate crimes are different because the perp’s target list is vastly larger, with the built-in implication of recidivism.

There’s so much wrong with this I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, when a guy kills another guy for cutting him off in traffic, I’m inclined to think the likelihood of recidivism is pretty high. It’s not like nobody’s ever going to piss him off again. Second of all, I’d think that severity of punishment should be tied primarily to its effectiveness as a deterrent to others, not as a deterrent to recidivism. We can deal with recidivism partly by keeping an eye on past offenders, but when it comes to deterring unknown others, punishment is all we’ve got.

But I mention those issues only in passing on my way to what I think is the really interesting question, namely: Which is more harmful? Targeting a specific individual for death or targeting a randomly chosen representative of some race?

And while we’re at it: Which is more harmful? Targeting someone for being black, or for being white?

Some thoughts:

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Cato Unbound: The Political Economy of Recycling

Here’s why recycling poses a policy dilemma: To keep people from dumping their trash on their neighbor’s lawns (or, when they burn it, in their neighbor’s lungs), we have to keep the price of landfill space artificially low. But once you’ve made landfill space cheap, you weaken the incentive to recycle, so arguably we get too little recycling. One solution is to pump up that incentive by casting recycling as a moral imperative. Unfortunately, once people believe recycling is a moral obligation, we’re liable to get too much of it.

This month’s issue of Cato Unbound is titled “The Political Economy of Recycling”, with a lead essay by Michael Munger of Duke University expanding on these and related points, with responses by Edward Humes, Melissa Walsh Innes and myself.

Over the course of the next month or so, we’ll be posting responses and re-responses to each others’ essays, as the mood strikes us. The best of your comments here might well find their way into some of my posted responses there.

Below the fold, a brief teaser from my essay:

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To Hold You Over….

Sorry to have been so silent this week; various deadlines have kept me away from this corner of the Internet. I’ll be back in force next week for sure. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some good reading, this is the best thing I’ve seen all morning.

Edited to add: “Best all morning” was not intended as damning-by-faint-praise. It’s actually the best of many mornings.

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Terror, Truth and Torture

Last week was not the first time the United States was transfixed by an act of terror. In 1964, three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi were (quoting Wikipedia) “threatened, intimidated, beaten, shot, and buried by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department.” It took 44 days and an FBI-initiated act of torture to locate their bodies.

The FBI, in a nod to the theory of comparative advantage, subcontracted the torture to the Mafia, more specifically to the Colombo family associate Gregory Scarpa. Here’s the story as relayed by Selwyn Raab, the New York Times investigative reporter who covered the Mafia for 25 years:

[Scarpa] went down to Mississippi for the FBI and kidnapped a KKK guy agents were sure was involved in disposing of the bodies. The guy had an appliance store. Scarpa bought a TV and came back to the store to pick it up just as he was closing. The guy helps him carry the TV to his car parked in the back of the store. Scarpa knocks him out with a bop to the head, takes him off to the woods, beats him up, sticks a gun down his throat and says “I’m going to blow your head off”. The KKK guy realized he was Mafia and wasn’t kidding and told him where to look for the bodies.

(Source: Raab’s book Five Families, which is fascinating throughout. Raab says the story has been verified by “former law enforcement officials who asked for anonymity and lawyers who are aware of the circumstances”.)

The moral of the story is that torture sometimes works. Other times it doesn’t, eliciting either no information, or false information, or whatever “information” the victim believes the inquisitor wants to hear. I am almost 100% ignorant, and hence virtually 100% agnostic, about the relative frequency of these outcomes in those cases where the torturer is both skilled in his art and genuinely interested in eliciting the truth. I will be very glad if any educated reader can shed light on this question. I doubt that we’re likely to learn of any controlled experiments, but I’ll settle for sketchy data or even well-chosen anecdotes. Failing that, I’ll settle for plausibility arguments.

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According to the New York Post, “President Obama’s temporary-amnesty program has paid off for 454,000 young immigrants who were brought here illegally.”

That’s all well and good, and I don’t begrudge a single one of those young immigrants his or her good fortune. But let’s be clear here: The biggest losers from our country’s heartless immigration policies are not the young people who have managed to find their way here only to risk deportation. The biggest losers are those who never got here in the first place.

If it were my job to remedy the evils of American immigration policy, I’d start by making it easier to get here, not easier to stay here. Or to put this another way: If the President is willing to allow 454,000 young immigrants (and no more) to be here, I’d prefer he deport everyone who’s already here and bring in another 454,000 to replace them. That way, a million people get at least some opportunity to reap the (relative) benefits of American education and American freedom, as opposed to a lucky half-million reaping all the benefits while another half-million get nothing.

It would be better, of course, to welcome everyone.

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Friedman on Psychic Harm

Four terrific posts by David Friedman, partly on psychic harm, partly on talking about psychic harm. I’d recommend these highly even if they hadn’t invoked my name.

Landsburg v Bork: What Counts As Injury?

Response to Bork and Landsburg

Frightening Ideas

Why Landsburg’s Puzzle is Interesting

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Legal Problems

Economists often say that the law should be written to promote efficient outcomes. That’s more ambiguous than it sounds.

Suppose I want to take an action that causes you harm; for example, I want to cut down a tree that you like looking at. How do we tell if that action is efficient?

Definition 1. The action is efficient if my willingness to pay exceeds your willingness to accept. For example, if I’m willing to pay $100 for the privilege of harvesting the tree, and if you’d accept less than $100 to part with it, then the tree-cutting is efficient.

Definition 2. The tree-cutting is efficient if it would occur in a world with no transactions costs (i.e. a world in which there are no impediments to bargaining).

In many circumstances, these definitions are equivalent, and economists often pretend they’re equivalent always — but sometimes they’re not.

Example 1. I want to punch you in the nose non-consensually. (The non-consensuality is a big part of my enjoyment.) I’d pay $100 to punch you in the nose, and you’d accept $50 to take the punch. By Definition 1, the punch is efficient. But the punch would be unlikely to occur in a world with no transactions costs, because it would require bargaining, hence consensuality on your part, which kills my interest. So by Definition 2, the punch is inefficient.

Example 2. I am willing to pay $100 to cut down a tree; you are willing to accept no less than $150 to part with it. By Definition 1, the cutting is inefficient. But part of the reason I’m willing to pay only $100 is that I’m credit constrained. In a world with no transactions costs, I’d borrow more, and would be willing to pay $200 to cut down the tree. So by Definition 2, the cutting is efficient.

Example 3. I am willing to pay $1000 to cut down a tree; you are willing to accept $500 to part with it. By Definition 1, the cutting is efficient. But the only reason I’m willing to pay so much is that I make an excellent living in my job as a mediator who helps people overcome transactions costs. In a world with no transactions costs, I’d be much poorer and would be willing to pay only $200 to cut the tree. So by Definition 2, the cutting is inefficient.

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Soda Jerk

The one lesson I most want my students to learn is this: You can’t just say anything. It’s important to care about making sense. So I find it particularly galling when people violate this rule while presenting themselves to the public as economists. It undercuts the single most important lesson we have to teach.

THe latest culprit is the unchastened serial offender Robert Frank, writing in the Business section of the Sunday New York Times. His argument has two parts, one philosophical and one economic. In both cases he substitutes blather for analysis. I’m less concerned about the philosophical part, because it’s such obvious nonsense that I can’t imagine anyone will take it seriously. But the fact that he got the economics wrong, and more importantly, his implied message that it doesn’t matter whether you get the economics wrong, seems calculated to undermine the public’s faith in economists. That’s the part I take personally.

Frank’s subject this time is New York Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to curb the sale of large sugary drinks. While acknowledging that such a ban would curb individual freedom in some dimensions, Frank argues that it would simultaneously enhance individual freedom in others — namely, it would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your child from drinking lots of soda.

Now, I do not doubt that for some parents, a ban on large sugary drinks would make it easier to prevent children from drinking lots of soda, but to call this an enhancement of freedom, you (or Robert Frank) would have to use the word “freedom” in a very unorthodox way. By Frank’s definition, a ban on Democratic campaign ads would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your children from voting for Democrats. Would Frank endorse such terminology? Or suggest that this effect, in and of itself, might suffice to consider the advertising ban a generally pro-freedom initiative?

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Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville

Note added on 4/5: Some readers missed the point of this post very badly, which means that it could have been written more clearly. Here is a brief attempt to clarify.


Here are three dilemmas about public policy:

Farnsworth McCrankypants just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be looking at pornography. It’s not that he thinks porn causes bad behavior; it’s just the idea of other people’s viewing habits that causes him deep psychic distress. Ought Farnsworth’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Farnsworth an argument for discouraging pornography through, say, taxation or regulation?

Granola McMustardseed just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be altering the natural state of a wilderness area. It’s not that Granola ever plans to visit that area or to derive any other direct benefits from it; it’s just the idea of wilderness desecration that causes her deep psychic distress. Ought Granola’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Granola an argument for discouraging, say, oil drilling in Alaska, either through taxes or regulation?

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

If your answers to questions 1, 2 and 3 were not all identical, what is the key difference among them?

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Deficit Attention Disorder

Imagine you’ve got a drinking problem. And imagine this conversation with your spouse:

Spouse: Dear, you’ve really got to do something about your drinking. You’ve been in three auto accidents this week, you’ve lost your job, and you’ve been trying to beat the children, though you keep passing out before you can get to them. I want to help you figure out how to get this under control.

You: You’ve got a fair point there. But let me point out that it would also be a good idea to redecorate the living room.

Spouse: Well, maybe so, and it’s something we can talk about at some point. But right now, I’d really like to focus on the drinking issue.

You: Doesn’t that strike you as imbalanced? Here we’ve got two issues on the table, and you want to focus 100% on one of them and 0% on the other. Why are you being so one-sided?

Spouse: Well, but I feel like there’s some urgency about the drinking thing, and I’d like to prioritize it.

You: Apparently, you’re fanatical on this issue. I don’t see how I can continue to take you seriously.

Spouse: Well, actually I’m trying to get you to focus on a very serious issue.

You: Yes, but by focusing exclusively on that issue, you’re betraying your fanaticism. Clearly, I’m the one who’s willing to address our problems, and you’re the one who’s just out to score debating points.

Spouse: Huh?

You: Not only that, but I’ve got a Nobel-prize winning economist who agrees with me!

How does that make you feel? I feel that way a lot when I read the news lately. Arguably, our country faces a spending crisis. The Republicans claim they want to deal with that crisis. (There’s some legitimate question about how sincere they are, but they at least say they want to deal with it.) The Democrats say: Okay, but let’s also talk about raising taxes. Maybe they’d also like to talk about redecorating the Rotunda; this seems roughly as pertinent. In other words, the Democrats attempt to deflect attention from the crisis (or the alleged crisis) by insisting that we talk about some other thing at the same time — and then they insist that the Republicans, by insisting that we focus on the issue at hand, are “betraying their fanaticism”. And they’ve managed to find a Nobel-prize winning economist willing to parrot this nonsense almost daily on the pages and webpages of the New York Times.

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I Don’t Get It

The frequently brilliant David Henderson seems to me to have fallen off a cliff in his (limited) defense of the recent tax bill. David thinks it’s a (relatively) good thing that under the new bill, income taxes rise only for those making over $400,000 and the estate tax is locked in only for estates over $5 million. (Relative, that is, to an across-the-board increase.)

David, in other words, seems to be saying that it’s a good thing that the tax code just got more progressive, and that a very small number of people are now going to bear a significantly greater share of the burden. I disagree.

Taxes are too high because spending is too high. But taking the path of spending as given (and David is right when he says that the delay of the sequester bodes very ill for that path), the question is not “how high should taxes be?”; that question is settled. Over time, taxes will be high enough to cover the spending. The only question is “how should the tax burden be distributed?”. The answer the politicians have agreed on is “a whole lot less equally”. They’re taking less now than they might have, but they’ll have to take more in the future, and when that time comes, they’ll have set a precedent that the rich should bear a greater fraction of the burden than they did a month ago.

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Why Do I Feel Like I Fell Off a Cliff?

The fiscal cliff deal that passed the Senate last night is appalling.

It raises marginal tax rates at the top (allegedly to “Clinton era levels” but actually higher once you account for the phaseouts of personal exemptions and itemized deductions), but not for anyone else, nibbling away at the rewards for productivity, and placing an ever-greater share of the tax burden on an ever-smaller fraction of the population.

Edited to add: Greg Mankiw has pointed out to me that the phaseouts were present in the Clinton years as well, so my remark about today’s rates being “higher once you account for the phaseouts” is wrong. On the other hand, as Greg also points out, with the increase in Medicare taxes pursuant to Obamacare, total tax rates are in fact higher than they were under Clinton. Greg points to this link for clarification.

Worse yet, it increases the rates on dividends, capital gains and inheritances, encouraging wealthy people to save less, consume more, and demand a greater share of the world’s resources.

The AMT, one of the few bright spots in the tax code, is permanently “fixed”, which is to say that almost nobody will pay it now.

This deal does absolutely nothing to control entitlement spending, which means it’s 100% fiscally irresponsible. Let’s be clear about this. When you’re overspending, the fiscally responsible thing is to spend less, not to cover the difference by visiting the ATM and depleting your assets. Wealthy taxpayers are the government’s ATM; the assets the government takes today won’t be there when they need more tomorrow. Let’s say it one more time: After all the talk about “fiscal responsibility”, there is nothing fiscally responsible about this deal.

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Over the Cliff

Re the fiscal cliff, I’ve tried hard to keep my head in the sand, figuring I can always go back to watching the news in 2016. So I’m not completely up to date on all this stuff, and I might be missing something important. But here are a few last-minute observations:

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Carbon Tax Policy: No Simple Answers

Assuming carbon emissions damage the environment, should they be discouraged through taxation? And if so, should the tax revenue be earmarked for damage abatement, or should it be paid into general funds?

Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in the New Yorker, suggests that economic theory decides this question in favor of a carbon tax. As I pointed out last week, she’s plain wrong. As a followup to some of the discussion on that post, here’s a simple example to illustrate that no policy can be infallible:

A steel mill pollutes the air, causing $24 worth of damage to the business of a laundromat next door. (Or if you prefer, read $24 worth of expected damage to the owners of oceanfront property or farmers in currently temperate zones.)

If the steel mill is forced to bear the consequences of this damage, it reduces its output. This cuts the pollution damage by $12, and cuts the profits of the steel mill by $17.

Question: Which is the best policy?

  1. The steel mill incurs no penalty for polluting.
  2. The steel mill pays a tax (or fine) equal to the damage it causes; the revenue is used to reduce the national debt.
  3. The steel mill is required to reimburse the laundromat for all damage.

Answer: It depends. Consider the following scenarios:

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A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

Writing in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert illustrates the power of analogy:

A man walks into a bar. He orders several rounds, downs them, and staggers out. The man has got plastered, the bar owner has got the man’s money, and the public will get stuck with the tab for the cops who have to fish the man out of the gutter.


The man pulls into a gas pump. He sticks his BP or Sunoco card into the slot, fills up and drives off. He’s got a full tank; the gas station and the oil company share in the profits. Meanwhile, the carbon that spills out of his tailpipe lingers in the atmosphere, trapping heat and contributing to higher sea levels. As the oceans rise, coastal roads erode, beachfront homes wash away, and, finally, major cities flood. Once again, it’s the public at large that gets left with the bill.

In both cases, Kolbert endorses the “fair and logical” solution: The man should be taxed to incorporate the costs that his choices impose on the rest of society.

I like this game. Can I play too?

A man chooses to build his house on the oceanfront instead of 100 miles inland. This makes him especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and therefore leads him to lobby for a carbon tax. The man gets his house; the builders and contractors share in the profits, and the public at large bears the consequence of higher gas prices.

Or even:

Some people want to burn a lot of carbon, which raises global temperatures, imposing costs on owners of oceanfront property. Other people want to protect their oceanfront property, imposing costs on the people who want to burn a lot of carbon. A journalist at the New Yorker convinces her readers that the only “fair and logical” solution to this conflict of interests is to come down entirely on the side of the property owners, leading to the implementation of suboptimal policies. The journalist gets paid, the magazine editors congratulate themselves on the influence of their writers, and the general public suffers the consequences.

Should the property owner and the journalist be taxed for exerting their malign influences?

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Can A Million Puppets All Be Wrong?

The million-puppet march on Washington is advertised as a demonstration in favor of public broadcasting, but of course that’s not exactly what it is.

What it is, exactly, is a demonstration in favor of the current level of funding for public broadcasting.

Now: Just how many of those puppets — or how many of their human fellow marchers — do you imagine would be able to tell you what the current level of funding for public broadcasting is?

And insofar as these humans are out there marching and chanting without pausing to inquire into what they’re marching and supporting — well, I guess that explains their affinity for puppets.

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The Mourdock Platform

Richard Mourdock, Indiana Senate candidate, has announced his opposition to interference with God’s revealed intent. I presume, then, that he’ll be taking a principled stand against firefighting, medical intervention, federal debt reduction, and unseating incumbent Presidents.

Update: Mourdock now clarifies his position by saying that “God does not want rape”. I’d thought he was saying that if a pregnancy occurs, God must have wanted it, which would seem to be an instance of the general principle that if anything occurs, God must have wanted it. Now we’re told that there is no such general principle — from which I am left to conclude that the only way to tell what God wants is to ask Richard Mourdock. This is a logically consistent criterion, but what if, for example, Mourdock happens to be indisposed at the moment when, say, terrorists attack the White House? How will we know whether it’s okay to resist?

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Debate Number Three

Limited commentary this time, partly because I am no expert on foreign policy so there’s no reason you should care about most of my opinions. On the other hand, the candidates had an exceptionally broad definition of foreign policy, which included trade, deficits, unemployment, education, etc. Commentary also limited by the fact that my attention wandered from time to time.

That said, here are my comments, typed in real time, unedited, not carefully thought through, perhaps in some cases ill-advised:

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Kidney Failure

So Alvin Roth wins the Nobel Prize for, among other things, figuring out the best way to allocate kidneys subject to the constraint that you’re too damned dumb to use the price system.

Next up: A Nobel prize in medicine for figuring out the best way to prolong your life while repeatedly shooting yourself in the head.

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Krugman — So Right and So Wrong

Paul Krugman offers a nice thought experiment to illustrate why government debt, in and of itself, does not make the country as a whole any poorer:

Suppose that … President Santorum passes a constitutional amendment requiring that from now on, each American whose name begins with the letters A through K will receive $5,000 a year from the federal government, with the money to be raised through extra taxes. Does this make America as a whole poorer?

The obvious answer is not, at least not in any direct sense. We’re just making a transfer from one group (the L through Zs) to another; total income isn’t changed. Now, you could argue that there are indirect costs because raising taxes distorts incentives. But that’s a very different story.

OK, you can see what’s coming: a debt inherited from the past is, in effect, simply a rule requiring that one group of people — the people who didn’t inherit bonds from their parents — make a transfer to another group, the people who did. It has distributional effects, but it does not in any direct sense make the country poorer.

Two comments:

Continue reading ‘Krugman — So Right and So Wrong’

Stopped Clocks

Paul Krugman gets this one exactly right; among the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax in a given year, most do pay federal income tax at some point in their lives — and thus have at least some stake in the tax system.

But even putting that aside, what’s particularly distressing about Mitt Romney’s “47%” speech is the failure to recognize at least one of the following two propositions:

a) Even people who never pay federal income tax have a substantial personal stake in a healthy, thriving economy, and therefore have a stake in federal tax policy. In particular, wages are determined by productivity, and productivity depends to a substantial extent on the accumulation of capital, which can be directly influenced by tax policy.

b) It is possible for a skilled candidate to explain the above, and to sell pro-growth tax policies as pro-wage-earner tax policies.

Yes, the candidate who tries to make such a reasoned case will be the victim of a certain amount of demagoguery about “trickle-down economics”, but the candidate who allows himself to be paralyzed by such threats should not be running for president.

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Charting the Tax Plans

Ezra Klein, quoted with approval by Paul Krugman, offers this chart of how the Obama and Romney tax proposals will change rates for taxpayers in various quintiles:

What we’re supposed to infer, according to Krugman, is that

we have an election in which one candidate is proposing a redistribution from the top … downward, mainly to lower-income workers, while the other is proposing a large redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the top.

But no such thing is remotely true. What we actually have is an election in which both candidates are proposing massive redistributions from the top downward, one slightly less so than the other. You’d never know this from looking at Klein’s chart because it illustrates changes in rates, whereas what actually matters is the rates themselves. It makes no sense to ask whether any particular group ought to be paying more or less without reference to how much they’re already paying.

Indeed, this is a classic example of what I once called the “Grandfather Fallacy” — by focusing on changes instead of absolutes, Klein’s chart conceals any existing inequities and hence treats them as “grandfathered in”.

Fortunately, Greg Mankiw has provided the numbers that allow us to make the requisite correction. Here, according to Mankiw, are the current tax burdens on various income groups (counting transfers as negative taxes, as of course one should):

Bottom quintile: -301 percent
Second quintile: -42 percent
Middle quintile: -5 percent
Fourth quintile: 10 percent
Highest quintile: 22 percent

Top one percent: 28 percent

That “-301 percent” means, for example, that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives $3.01 in net transfers for every $1 that it earns.

By adding these numbers to the numbers in Klein’s graph, we can construct a picture that actually depicts something interesting, namely the projected tax burdens for each group. It looks like this (the vertical axis represents percentage of income):

Note, for example, that, contrary to the impression you might have gotten from Klein’s and Krugman’s posts, both plans place the highest percentage burden on the top 1%, and both plans place a negative burden on the middle quintile — though Obama’s does both of these things to an ever-so-slightly greater extent than Romney’s does. There’s room for disagreement about which plan is fairer, but no room, I think, for disagreement about which chart is relevant.

Continue reading ‘Charting the Tax Plans’

Immigration Followup

I’m a little frazzled this week, so I haven’t caught up with all the comments on Monday’s
post on immigration, but I know there’s been some discussion about the actual costs and benefits of admitting unskilled immigrants. I thought I’d supply some numbers that might inform that discussion; all of this is lifted from Chapter 20 of The Big Questions.

When an unskilled Mexican immigrant arrives in the United States, his wages typically rise from about $2 a hour to $9 an hour — call it a $7 an hour gain. He also bids down the wages of American workers by (and this is a high-end estimate from the labor economics literature) about $.00000003 per hour; multiply that by a hundred million American workers and you’ve got a collective $3 an hour loss.

Now there seems to be something like a consensus that it’s okay for US policies to benefit US citizens at the expense of Mexicans, but there also seems to be something like a consensus that there’s a limit to that; we would not want, for example, to allow Americans to hunt Mexicans for sport. So when we consider turning someone away at the border, one good question is: Are we willing to do $7 worth of harm to a Mexican in order to confer $3 worth of benefits on American workers?

Note that the potential Mexican immigrant is typically much poorer than those American workers, and that it’s not uncommonly argued that we should care more about the poor than about the rich. If you weight that $7 loss to the Mexican and that $3 gain to the Americans accordingly (i.e. assuming logarithmic utility, which is a quite conservative assumption — that is, one that biases the result in the anti-immigration direction), you discover exclusion hurts the Mexican about five times as much as it helps the Americans.

So, at least if you buy into that way of thinking (which pervades a lot of the policy literature) then exclusion is justified only if you “count” a Mexican as less than one-fifth of an American. That’s a pretty extreme position. It’s not as extreme as hunting Mexicans for sport, but it’s still pretty extreme.

Continue reading ‘Immigration Followup’

Lest We Forget

Thanks to an election-year conversion by the President of the United States, 800,000 young people born outside the country will now be spared the threat of deportation. That’s a good thing. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the biggest victims of American immigration policy are not the ones we deport; they’re the ones who never got to come here in the first place.

The President defends his new policy as humane. Put aside the question of where his humanity has been for the past three and a half years and ask yourself what’s so humane about protecting the children of relatively rich “illegals” (that is, the ones who have had the opportunity to earn American wages) while we continue to bar the door to their desperately impoverished cousins.

Regarding the beneficiaries of this new policy, the President says that

These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag …

Why is any of this relevant? When did visibility become a criterion for moral status?

This is indeed a time to celebrate and I don’t want to diminish that. But I do have two questions for the President:

Continue reading ‘Lest We Forget’

Fighting Back

notredameA consortium of Catholic institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, is suing to overturn the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. I hope they lose. I think.

The birth control mandate strikes me as a very hard policy to defend, though I’ve done my part to put together the best possible arguments in its favor. For the record, I do think there’s a quite reasonable case to be made for some insurance mandates — primarily with regards to pre-existing conditions and catastrophic illnesses. (There’s also a very good case against those mandates, so don’t take this as an endorsement!). Those mandates at least address plausible market failures. A contraception mandate pretty clearly fails that test (though see the discussion at the linked post for some reasoned argument to the contrary).

So I believe the mandate is bad policy, both in its specifics and in its general presumption in favor of government power. If this isn’t unconstitutional, we need a better constitution. But that’s not the basis of Notre Dame’s lawsuit. Notre Dame’s position, as I understand it, is that Catholic institutions (as opposed to, say, General Electric) should be exempt from the mandate because religious objections (as opposed to, say, financial objections) have some kind of special exalted status. That strikes this non-lawyer as straying perilously close to a law respecting the establishment of religion. And if that’s not unconstitutional, then we really need a better constitution.

Continue reading ‘Fighting Back’